WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s private lawyers are probing special counsel Robert Mueller and his legal team for conflicts of interest, and even looking into the president’s power to pardon himself and his inner circle, news reports said Friday.
The new drive to push back on and even undermine the credibility of the Justice Department’s special counsel comes as Mueller and his team began taking a closer look at the finances of Trump, his family and his associates, including deals before he was president.
The reports follow Trump’s interview published Thursday in which he said that Mueller and members of his team have conflicts of interest and warned the special prosecutor not to cross a red line by shifting his investigation from Russia and into his family’s finances.
It also comes ahead of a Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing next week to question Donald Trump Jr., Trump aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort about contacts with Russians during the campaign.
“There are so many conflicts that everybody has,” Trump said in a New York Times interview, offering a critique that went beyond the special prosecutor’s staff to include the deputy FBI director and the deputy attorney general who appointed Mueller.
And the president has asked his advisers about the extent of his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in the probe, one unnamed source said, and a second source said his lawyers have been discussing pardons themselves, The Washington Post reported.
The new aggressive approach by Trump’s legal team comes as it goes through a shake-up in which its spokesman resigned and Washington veteran attorneys Ty Cobb and John Dowd took the lead from Trump’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz, several news reports said.
Trump’s lawyers “will consistently evaluate the issue of conflicts and raise them in the appropriate venue,” Trump team attorney Jay Sekulow told The Associated Press Thursday.
Among them, Trump said in the interview, are campaign contributions to Democrats by members of Mueller’s team, Mueller’s interviewing for the FBI director’s job the day before he was appointed special counsel and, reports said, even Mueller’s resignation from a Trump golf club.
Rep. Chris Collins (D-Buffalo), a key Trump supporter, told CNN that the campaign contributions were not a valid conflict — “money is the ugly side of politics,” he said. Collins also called Mueller a “man of integrity.” He did not extend that praise to Mueller’s team.
The attack on the special counsel is reminiscent of the campaign that President Bill Clinton and his aides pressed against Independent Counsel Ken Starr in the 1990s, said former Clinton aide Paul Begala and other commentators.
Top Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees conducting their own investigation of Trump campaign ties to Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election reacted to the new developments with alarm.
“The possibility that the President is considering pardons at this early stage in these ongoing investigations is extremely disturbing,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said in a statement Thursday night.
“Pardoning any individuals who may have been involved would be crossing a fundamental line,” he said, adding that Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a recent hearing declined to comment about whether Trump had discussed pardons in the probe.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) in a statement urged Trump to “rule out categorically” efforts to undercut the special counsel’s investigation with pardons and defended Mueller’s authority “to investigate anything that arises” from his probe.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said on CNN that he would propose and try to pass a statute to create an independent counsel appointed by a panel of three judges who could not be fired by the president, like Starr.
Republicans expressed less concern.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said on CNN that the pushback is “what Bill Clinton did,” adding that “this is standard procedure.” Yet he acknowledged Trump’s public comments about the probe are unusual.
Collins also downplayed the president’s attacks on Mueller.
“This is just nothing more than standard practice when you’re involved in litigation,” Collins said. Trump’s comments, Collins said, represent his frustration “with everything Russia, every day.”